Books will be commissioned, movies made, web series scripted and even Broadway might show interest. The story of cricket’s most nerve-wracking game ever, the 2019 World Cup final, is destined to live forever. Beyond the Super Over drama, the Ben Stokes “Hand of God” moment; Lord’s on Sunday had a field full of men with back stories hand-crafted for a Reader’s Digest collector’s edition.
They reminded the world how sport enhances life, redefines set parameters and reconfirms the power of self-belief. The men on the turf with medals around their necks showcased the human capacity to move on from deeply disturbing trauma and rationalise setbacks as stepping stones on the way to dizzy heights.
Back in 2014, during India’s tour of England, I witnessed the early chapters of one of the many feel-good tales. It was on the first day of the Nottingham Test that I had met this pleasant elderly couple from Yorkshire. They were the Plunketts, who were in the stands to watch their son Liam, England’s trusted all-rounder.
A day before, I had seen the three together after the Test-eve training session. They had looked every bit a caring, close-knit family. The father, tall but frail, lovingly brushed off the dirt from Liam’s shirt. The mother, a silver-haired lady, pulled out cream from her handbag and spread on her son’s sun-baked lips. The square-jawed 6 ft 3 inches broad-shoulder hunk, like most men with those physical attributes, wasn’t embarrassed by the parental attention. He merely smiled. Liam knew what the moment meant to his parents.
During the lunch break, the father shared the story of how Liam had almost given up on his international career for him. Plunkett Sr had a genetic renal disorder and had to frequently undergo dialysis. One visit home, and the cricketer son couldn’t see the father’s suffering anymore. He got his tests done and the reports found him to be a perfect match, giving the good son the green signal to be his father’s kidney donor.
This was 2007, he was just 22 and training hard to make an international comeback. However, the father’s insistence and subsequent health improvement resulted in Liam pursuing his cricket dream. Had there been a minor twist to this tale, England wouldn’t have had that unflustered big-stage bowler, who came with a scrambled-seam cutter to dismiss the New Zealand captain and Player of the Tournament Kane Williamson in the final.
When the English captain, Eoin Morgan, ended his country’s long-wait to lift the Cup; watching the unadultered and over-the-top revelry of the punch drunk English fans at Lord’s, made you wonder if anyone ever could be happier. But then you thought of the elderly Yorkshire couple you met at Nottingham five years back.
Not as emotional as the Plunketts, New Zealand too has a young man with an exemplary and inspiring life story. In a downward spiral because of a soul-crushing injury and loss of form, New Zealand all-rounder Jimmy Neesham too had decided to quit the sport. Such was his disgust towards the sport he once deeply loved that he would wake on match days, peep out of the window hoping it had rained and the match would get called off. He even thought of settling as a salesman for a company that sold electric collars for cows.
He didn’t, he stuck around. Had he not, who would have come up with those “nailing yorkers” and “sailing sixes” in the final moments at Lord’s. If not for him, the game wouldn’t have been tied twice. It would have been just another close final, not the greatest cricket game ever played.
The biggest challenge for those taking this “greatest game” to the screen or stage will be the narrative’s lack of intrigue, melodrama or histrionics. For starters, the two teams were led by men with angelic faces, the kind that make mothers, watching cricket at home, recoil when they see their favourite get hurt on field. Morgan and Williamson don’t wear their aggression on their sleeve but it still is felt by the two batsmen on the pitch and also nine inside the dressing room.
They are strong and silent, and they stay the same regardless of the match situation. They don’t put on a mask, or a game face, when entering the field. Williamson and Morgan aren’t all smiles at 5/3 and get scowly at 320/4. Their qualities and concepts are elusive; they remain invisible to the untrained eye. Their actions and decisions drop a hint but the two are way too understated for anyone to read their minds.
For the in-your-face Indian squad that has now lost two semis and two finals at ICC events — 50-overs World Cup and T20 Championship — there are lessons to be learnt. Virat Kohli can learn the art of restrained aggression from Williamson and Morgan. Maybe, he can even give a thought about being more selective when it comes to the words he mouths in both delight and despair. The impressionable young cricketers might take years to perfect the Kohli cover drive, but reading the lips of the hero and repeating it on the cricket field wouldn’t take time.
The England vs New Zealand final where no one choked or had a brain freeze — there were slip ups on both sides but no case of nerves — should act as a tutorial for the Indian cricketers. England and India chased virtually a similar total against the same bowling attack but the hosts came out shining.
A couple of batting failures here and there are part of cricket but a top-order collapse, a middle-order surrender and a faulty finish in the same game and that too a World Cup knock-out clash hints at a chronic nervous disorder. Champion sides know how to flirt with fine margins. They know how to walk the tight rope.
But when expectations of fans are unreasonable, tasteless television teasers compare lifting the silverware to drinking tea from cheap china and some ill-dressed movie star walks on the field to monetise the dream of billions that 2019 will be a sequel to 1983; you know that fear of failure came in the way of succeeding.